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Can I go outside while self-isolating for coronavirus?

Brianna Bell writer headshot By | March 30, 2020
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

Schools are closed, playgrounds sit empty on sunny spring days, and grocery stores are limiting the number of shoppers—some have even installed plexiglass as a barrier between cashier and customer. To stop the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, many people have been urged to stay inside. Social distancing is now a part of our everyday language and conversations—a concept that many people likely hadn’t heard of until recently—and now most of us are practicing it. Many people who are social distancing are still going outside to enjoy a walk or trail, but can you do the same if you’re in self-isolation or self-quarantining?

The difference between social distance and self-isolation

Social distancing means avoiding crowded spaces and events. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, social distancing includes canceling events, closing down many non-essential services like schools and libraries, and having people work from home if possible. People who are social distancing are advised to stay home, unless their job is deemed an essential service, or they must leave their house to gather supplies like food.

“Self-isolation is separating yourself from the population if you are believed to have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, or have tested positive for it,” says Soma Mandal, MD, a board-certified medical internist at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. In other words, an infected person (or someone who thinks they might be infected with COVID-19) should self-isolate to prevent coronavirus transmission.

RELATED: What to do if you think you have coronavirus

Can I go outside if I’m in self-isolation?

 Most of us can’t imagine being cooped up inside all day, the thought of getting outside to stretch our legs is tempting. But what are the rules around self-isolating and getting outdoors?

“Someone in self-isolation can go outside for fresh air, but should ideally remain in the confines of their own home, such as their backyard,” says Dr. Mandal.

Susan Besser, MD, a primary care provider at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland says, “Self-isolation is limiting exposure to others at all times. This is done by staying home and away from coworkers. The point is to limit the spread of COVID-19. If you aren’t around others, you can’t spread or catch the virus.”

Which outdoor areas are safe during self-isolation?  

If you’re in self-isolation, you should really not be outside except for your own property, explains Dr. Mandal. If you need to go to the doctor, you should call first, and wear a mask. Similarly, if you have to go to the emergency room, you should call first to protect healthcare workers and other patients there. 

However, Dr. Besser says a short walk where you keep your distance from others is acceptable.

Some ideas for fresh air if you’re feeling cooped up in isolation include:

  • Go on a walk either early in the morning, or late at night, when there are fewer people outside
  • Sit on your front porch or spend some time in your backyard
  • Open up all of your windows for some fresh air

Places to avoid while in self-isolation: 

  • Playgrounds, or any place with equipment that you might touch
  • Public places where others gather
  • Anywhere that is crowded or has high traffic

Dr. Mandal says that if you decide to go for a walk with someone, you should keep your distance to at least six feet. “At this time, since this is now a pandemic, walking should only be restricted to immediate family members,” she advises.

If you’re out for a walk with someone else, “Don’t pass items back and forth, such as cell phones—no touching someone else’s stuff,” Dr. Besser says.

What should I do if I encounter someone and I’m on a walk?

Ideally, you wouldn’t be near anyone when you’re out on a walk, but if you do see someone approaching it’s best to keep your distance or change directions (for example, you can cross the road if someone is walking toward you).

Dr. Besser says you can gently remind someone of social distancing if anyone starts to come close to you. It is important to cover your cough or sneeze to avoid the spread of the infection.  

“If you are walking in your neighborhood and you see someone approaching you, stop and hold out your arms requesting that they keep an appropriate distance,” Dr. Mandal says. “Unfortunately, not everyone is adhering to the current recommendations, but it is our responsibility to gently remind everyone to keep their boundaries.”